As a traditionalist, a defender of the tried and true against the new and untried, a devotee of personal restraint when faced with overriding challenges, and a defender of the inherited tradition, the present writer has been a critic of change, especially dramatic upheavals, for all of his life. However, twelve years ago he was encouraged to accept an addition to his family that changed his life.
By birth an agrarian, raised in rural, Piedmont, North Carolina, in what the eminent historian Clyde Wilson describes as the Promised Land, old folkways persevere and nurture each successive generation. In this world, hunting dogs are one of the most valued companions a gentleman can have in his life; for my family, our prized companion was the North American Beagle. These creatures were a source of great companionship and occasional sporting pride. On the other hand, felines of all varieties were the most despised of creatures, especially the domestic house cat. As a young man, I shared this unfortunate bias, an error of my ways that I eventually overcame. During my childhood, only exceptional men of great perception, skill, and manly virtue were not willing to succumb to this ideological worldview. Perhaps the greatest example of such a spoudias, or weighty man, was my paternal grandfather, William Spencer Cheek, one of the last mountain men, a native of Yadkin County, North Carolina, a center of the moonshining trade in the 1930s, and the genesis of NASCAR. Grandpa Cheek, the sort of fellow often also described as a “man’s man,” was surprisingly a devotee of the American Domestic Shorthair, or the “tab cat.” He went to great lengths to care for his cats, along with his other animals. The seeds of this writer’s eventual feline redemption were planted early in his life.
Most of my childhood was spent unaware of the beauty, grace, and love exhibited by felines. In fact, I could not fathom how a cat could transform my life. Providentially, while on a “sabbatical” from Duke Divinity School, I was given the opportunity to serve as the research assistant to a remarkable scholar and lover of cats, Russell Amos Kirk. As a leading political thinker and man of letters of the twentieth century, Dr. Kirk possessed many friends and admirers. For Dr. Kirk, cats were a special gift from the Divine, and to be protected and cherished. One of his friends, Thomas Stearns Eliot, composed the great affirmation of the feline, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and this obviously influenced Dr. Kirk, and eventually, your servant.
Guided by the inspiration of Grandpa Cheek and Russell Amos Kirk, even though closed to the prospect of having a feline in our house, some openness emerged after making a professional transition to Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, an exemplary liberal arts college. My wife, Kathy, convinced me that we needed a cat. I was adamantly opposed to the prospect initially, but my life experiences allowed me to consider the possibility. In August of 2000, I walked gently into a pet store on Keith Street in Cleveland, Tennessee, and a beautiful tab cat kitten with white paws ran up to me without provocation; her paws glistened in the bright lights of the store, suggesting she had chosen me as her new factotum. Little did I know that this kitten would change my life. In a day or so we brought Sophie to our Georgia Bell Circle home. Sophie was an adorable kitten, not in the typical sense that all kittens are adorable; she seemed to be able to discern your attitude and you intentions, and responded in due course. At the beginning of her first night with us, we placed her in the kitchen, and between the kitchen and the dining room we placed an inflatable bed (vertically) so as to block exit from the kitchen. Sophie cried and obviously wanted to spend the evening with us, but she eventually settled down and we went to sleep. Much to our surprise and excitement, in middle of the night, she was able to make her way into our bedroom, overcoming the “great wall” we had placed in her way! We quickly discerned that Sophie was unstoppable and unflappable, even in the midst of difficult situations. As she overcame her inflatable bed as barricade, she would overcome many challenges during her twelve years on this earth.
No memory or accounting of the life of Sophie would be complete without some mention of the special bond between Sophie and Kathy. From the first time they encountered each other, a union of spirit and affection was created. It is difficult to describe the connectivity between these two living creatures, a bond that never dissipated during Sophie’s lifetime. In many regard, Sophie should best be remembered as a feline genius. At many points in her life, she approximated an understanding of human speech. In addition to the spoken word, she was an expert at discerning human emotional needs as well. She was a “two person cat,” with only a duo of real friends for the duration of her life; it was a great honor to have been one of these persons, but I was the inferior of the two friends in Sophie’s estimation.
From an early age, Sophie was a source of profound amusement, occasional bewilderment, and inestimable joy. When only a few months old, and still adjusting to life, we were visited by our longtime friends, the Teem family. Our traditionally-designed house contained a long hallway. During the Teem visit, in the midst of a rather rambunctious series of movements, the youngest Teem, Kaitlyn, and Sophie ran into each other at full speed in the middle of the long hallway without an exit of any sort. The culmination of the head-on collision was the issuing of great shouts, and two living creatures making 180° turns away from each other! Within a month or so later, Sophie had her first encounter with another cat. Our dear friend Dr. Mary Waalkes, brought over her cat, John Wesley, named after the great Methodist evangelist, to meet Ms. Sophie. Yet again, Sophie would demonstrate, as she would on many more occasions, she was a two-person animal, holding every other cat and most humans in great disdain.
Sophie was a great lover of all games, but had a particular preference for certain toys. By accident, we discovered that an old belt renamed the “sneaky snake” would become Sophie’s early favorite and lifelong source of entertainment. She literally chased the improvised snake without ceasing when it was used to imitate an actual snake, often for hours, until both the snake enabler and the cat were exhausted. She also loved small toy rats, and for that matter, any object a person would want to throw, and she would proceed to chase the object. Unlike a canine, however, Sophie simply enjoyed the chase, and had no interest in retrieving any object.
Within a year of her birth, we took Sophie on her first sojourn. We traveled to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, en route to visiting Angie, my stepdaughter, in Tallahassee. In 2001, they were fewer hotels willing to accommodate pets, but we hoped we could locate one nevertheless. At the last moment, after not securing a pet-friendly hotel, and having Sophie with us for the duration of the journey, we faced the inevitable: a covert mission was the only course of action. After being stowed away in my gym bag, and with the mid-afternoon Florida temperature rising, we decided to take her to our room. What ensued was a week of feline hijinks, with Sophie scampering towards the door every time a housekeeper came to visit; ostensibly she only wanted to introduce herself to the maid. On several occasions, she tried to escape from a second-floor porch and explore the ocean and the sand more fully. But this was not Sophie’s only trip to the coast. Many years later we took Sophie to St. Augustine, Florida, on our historical tour of Spanish missions and other locales. After arriving in St. Augustine—and much to our chagrin—we realized we had inadvertently chosen the Daytona bike weekend for our visit. Because of the overflow of bikers, many of the self-professed easy riders were staying at our hotel in St. Augustine! Sophie immediately became ensconced on the window ledge, scoffing at all varieties of bikers, from the ranks of counter culture hipsters, to doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs—all with the same level of disdain. Sophie was not a good traveler, but this did not prevent us from taking her on trips. She traveled to Ohio, North Carolina, and many other places.
In Sophie’s third year, we moved to 600 8th Street NW in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, just a five block walk from Lee University (my employer) into a 1920 Craftsman bungalow with asbestos shingles and a decorative metal roof, built during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The bungalow had a beautiful window seat in the front of the house, and Sophie located this perch within a few minutes of initially touring the house. She found great enjoyment in watching the cars, trucks, bewildered Lee University students, and others, pass by her house. Regardless of the situation outside, Sophie was impervious to the distractions of the world. The greatest challenges she ever faced were her encounters with a militant mockingbird. The mockingbird, often only a few inches on the other side of a glass storm door, was the only animal to evoke a spirit of fear within Sophie. Kathy was completing her college degree at Covenant College, often taking classes that did not end until late in the evening. The ever-prescient Sophie, realizing her “mom” was away, would wait anxiously by the door for her safe return. Upon Kathy’s return, Sophie would become the most excited creature God ever created! Such was the bond between Sophie and Kathy. At this old house, Sophie experienced her best days, spending many long days in front of the fireplace. She had already become a legend in our lives and in the stories I regaled my students with great regularity.
In 2005 we returned to South Georgia generally, and to Vidalia specifically. This move was Sophie’s first extended sojourn out of Tennessee. We were able to hire our good friend and cat whisperer, Dr. Mary Waalkes as well, so Kathy, Sophie, and I were reunited with our pal Mary who had encouraged us so much in our cat pursuits. Mary was the only person outside of my wife and me, who really understood Sophie, but this was an understanding not always reciprocated by Sophie. On one occasion, when we were out of town, we asked Mary to feed Sophie for us. On her way to church, Mary attempted to feed Sophie. Much to her surprise, Sophie was more interested in Mary’s ankle than the food. From that moment on, Mary was always on her guard around Sophie, but undaunted in her willingness to help with the wildcat. In March 2006, another cat, Mr. Macavity, decided he would join our family. Sophie and Macavity would never become best friends, although they reached a level of détente, and they kept each other on alert at all times. Little Miss Sophie, or Sophirina, as we occasionally called her, was already a renowned feline, and was even awarded the “pet of the week” honor in the Vidalia Advance Progress. After receiving this recognition, Sophie’s picture and personage became even more well-known throughout all South Georgia!
One of the most potentially dangerous events in her life was her accidental visit to the attic in our old, restored house in Vidalia. Against all odds, Sophie was able to force her way into the attic during the heat of a South Georgia summer, and upon escape, there was never an animal more happy to leave the confines of a manmade purgatory.
In 2009 we moved to Athens, Alabama, where I assumed the duties of the associate vice president for academic affairs at Athens State University, it was a much colder environment than Sophie had ever encountered before. She fared well, even with her erstwhile companion, Mr. Macavity. Unfortunately, she continued to be plagued by feline calicivirus, a disease that would eventually bring about her demise. It is terrible disease, which she inherited, but was not diagnosed with until she was a year or two old. Sophie confronted the virus every day of her life, and she required regular shots to battle the disease. In 2011, we moved to Gainesville, Georgia, and Sophie continued to prosper.
She spent most of her days on a large back porch watching birds and watching fish in her koi pond. Her health was fragile, but on occasion, she would rally and impress everyone with her energy and agility. The next year we returned to Vidalia. As the Summer became Fall, Sophie’s health began to decline, but she was a feline of great internal strength, and she fought the good fight, as St. Paul always urges. In November, on her last night among us, and while sick, she jumped into my wife’s lap, and was her old self, albeit quite ill. The next day we were forced to put Sophie to sleep. This was one of the most difficult decisions my wife and I have ever made. Few days pass without our reflecting on Sophie and that difficult night. As a Methodist minister and former Army chaplain, I have grieved over the loss of this wonderful, stubborn, brilliant cat as much as I have grieved for many departed humans I have known. I do not consider my sentiments to be sacrilegious or unusual or extreme; my views are merely a sign of my great love for this amazing animal. We miss her, love her, and we will remember her forever.
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1. See Stuart Marks, Southern Hunting in Black & White: Nature, History and Ritual in a Carolina Community (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991).